The following is a little something I prepared for Dritan Xhengo of Past & Present Albania Tours, who is working to promote eco-tourism in Albania. If you’re interested in trips planned around this information, please contact him directly.
If you’re an Avid Birder (as opposed to an Avian Birder – ha ha), you may be interested in Valbona Field Checklist – 6 pages we’ve prepared based on information from Albanian Ornithologist Dr. Taulant Bino. Please do download and use it, especially if you can share your observations with us!
Birding in Albania
The Albanian Setting
Albania consists of almost 30,000 square kilometers, with a coastline stretching 450km adjoining the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. Albania’s territory encompasses the 3 largest tectonic lakes of the Balkan Peninsula, with the second largest, Lake Ohrid, reaching a maximum depth of 289m and harboring many endemic species. Away from the coast, 70% of Albania’s territory is classified as hilly or mountainous and was until very recently inaccessible, certainly by car. The average altitude in Albania is 708m, twice that of the European norm. The highest mountains in Albania (Jezerces near the Montenegrin border and Korabi on the Macedonian) reach up to 2700m.
These characteristics combine to create a unique diversity of ecosystems and habitats. Add to this the country’s historic isolation during the latter half of the 20th century and its attendant lag in industrial development, and Albania offers a unique richness of nature and wildlife for visitors to enjoy. A few hours walking are sufficient to experience both classic Mediterranean habitat at lower altitudes as well as the Alpine meadows and peaks of higher elevations, where it is not uncommon to find the southernmost distribution of Arctic Alpine flora. Albania has over 3200 naturally occurring species of plants (almost 200 endemic or sub-endemic), 756 vertebrate species (including healthy populations of wolves, brown bears and wild boar) and over 350 recorded bird species, including 91 globally threatened species.
At least, this is what we know. There were a handful of Albanian biologists active in the 20th century whose work (including an extensive taxidermic collection) was ensconced in 1949 at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Tirana – a structure and collection currently facing a very doubtful future due to lack of maintenance. In the past 20 years, environmental research has been the passionate work of a few devoted individuals, and the fact is that large areas of Albania remain unexplored ecologically speaking, and nowhere is this more true than in the wild highlands of the Northern Albanian Alps.
Birding in Northern Albania
Modern Albanian bird research has been carried out under the devoted auspices of one man, Dr. Taulant Bino of Tirana University. His research to date focuses on coastal wetlands, and thus we have good data regarding bird populations of the coast, particularly around the protected areas of Lake Shkoder, Divjake-Karavasta, Karaburuni and Potok. Lake Prespa on the South-Western border with Greece and Macedonia has likewise benefited from an alliance of international ornithologists. But the Albanian Alps? Except for scattered reports from
the occasional interested visitor, no one has ever – not ever – recorded data for this rare and precious area. Thus enthusiastic birders are welcomed with open arms. Your contribution to can be invaluable, not only increasing the sum knowledge of bird life in this last undiscovered corner of Europe, but also providing information critical in the impending battle to protect the remaining, invaluable wild habitats of Northern Albania.
What You Might See, and When You Could See It
Excluding the wildfowl of Shkoder lake which are well-documented, the challenge is to predict what might be seen further inland, in the valleys and on the peaks of Albania’s Dinaric Alps.
Dr. Bino has kindly provided a “Tentative List” of birds which one might expect to see in the Valbona Valley, attached in the form of a “Birding Field Checklist” including 145 total species. Knowledgeable birders will gain the best idea of what to expect from a quick perusal of this. Here is some of the information, helpfully totted up by total:
When are they here? 83 species should be year-round residents with an additional 38 breeding species for a total of 121 species predicted between spring and autumn. An additional 17 wintering and 7 migratory species might be encountered at the beginning or end of the season.
Where are they? The majority of species are classed as inhabiting Forest (74) or Rocky environments (27). Runners up included Scrubland (15), Urban/Human (12), Aquatic/Riverine (9) and Grassland (8).
What will you actually see? Well, therein lies the excitement – who knows!? One life-long, professional birder who visited last year had a White-Backed Woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos) fly past her head next to the Valbona River. This was the first time she’d seen one, despite years of looking. However, it is worthwhile (if sobering) to note that 1/3 of the birds listed have “vulnerable” – or worse – status within Albania.
Where to Go
Since the 1990s, the amount of officially “Protected Land” in Albania has increased to more than 12.5% of the total area. In Northern Albania these areas include the Strict Nature Reserve of the Gashi River Valley, the National Parks of Valbona and Thethi, and the Managed Nature Reserves of Shkoder Lake and Korab-Koritnik.
There are of course many other areas which, while not ‘officially’ protected, are so isolated as to function as defacto reserves, in which we would include the Curraj Valley (south of Valbona Valley in Lekbibaj). It would be interesting to have a record of bird usage of the man-made hydroelectric lakes of Koman and Fierze.
Lake Shkoder:Best for: Waterfowl and Migration Paths. The Montengrin side of the Lake (2/3 of its area) has been a National Park since 1983. It’s one of the largest bird reserves in Europe, with 270 species on record. Species of note include the Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus). Nearby accommodation and birdwatching alternatives include Velipoja, located at the estuary of the Buna River, as well Shurdhah Island in Lake Vau i Dejes.
Valbona & Thethi National Parks: Best for: Rocky, Forest & Grassland habitat. Only just being opened to practical car travel, Valbona and Theth are two adjacent valleys separated by a 6 hour hike over a 1800m pass. For birds they may well be considered the same place – it will be interesting to find out! – but for humans, Theth is part of the Shkoder region, while Valbona is in Tropoja, more related to nearby Kosovo. Valbona probably has the edge on Theth in that it is further from the developed coast, and has denser, less disturbed forest (beech and pine). A two hour hike can bring birders up to the “Bjeshket” or summer mountain pastures which offer an interesting Alpine Grassland habitat, as well as being home to particularly rich owl populations (all those shepherds – and their mice!). Above this, all paths in both valleys lead to high passes, where raptors spin lazily on the thermals.
Gashi Nature Reserve: The largest strictly protected area in Albania, it has small summer shepherd settlements, but no road at all. Best for Forest, Riverine, Grassland habitats. The only drawback is that it’s strictly walk in, walk out, and most people will want to camp. It is possible to reach Doberdoll at the northern end of the valley, and from there to do a loop NW to reach Valbona via the high mountain village of Cerem (1200m). Rough accommodation is available in Doberdoll and Cerem. Alternatively, turning NE from Doberdoll allows you walk into Kosovo, if you can arrange border-crossing permission in advance.
Curraj i Eperm: Best for: Forest and Rocky habitats. Once home to numerous families in over 300 houses, Curraj i Eperm (Upper Curraj) is now known as “The Lost Village.” Only two families still return each summer, one of which is beginning to talk of opening a guesthouse. Why is it lost? Because it is a 14 hour walk from anywhere. Not surprisingly, not much is known about it, but local gossip suggests that the lack of human activity seems to be fostering a particularly rich ecology, with healthy populations of Roe Deer (quite rare elsewhere), probably the rare Balkan Lynx, and a particularly dense forest which might be harboring anything. 4 day circuits are possible with a guide, beginning in Valbona and ending up in Theth, for those interested in camping trips.
Korab-Koritnik: Heading South from Kukes on the Peshkopi road, one arrives at the Managed Nature Reserve of Korab-Koritnik. The most notable thing about this large area is that it encompasses Korab, the highest mountain partly inside Albania (2764m), other than that, very little has been written about the area. An encouraging aspect is the Macedonian National Park of Mavrovo just across the border, which is frequently credited with spillage of interesting species into Albania.